Alternate Universe Sam Raimi Puts a Couple of Interesting Vfx in the Bland ‘Multiverse of Madness’

[This article contains major spoilers for the plot of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.]

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness looks for the most part, much like any other Marvel movie; people with colorful costumes and too much eye make-up stand in front of green screens and pretend to see force bolts. But every so often, there’s a moment or an idea that harkens back to director Sam Raimi’s loopy indie horror sensibility. It’s as if a scuzzy zombie double is trying to crawl from the smooth shell of its CGI corporate self. 

The fight sequence which appears in the trailer with the giant one-eyed octopus Starro kaiju knock-off is one of the worst in the film, though it’s not unrepresentative. Giant Kaiju appears in the New York streets, CGI tentacles waving on some computer screen, and you’re supposed to shrug and pretend it’s throwing around buses and bric-a-brac.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as Dr. Strange waves his hands perfunctorily, manipulating discs of light and force which he clearly doesn’t really believe in. There’s a lot of carnage, noise, and pizzazz signifying nothing in particular. Raimi seems to be putting as little effort as possible into filling in the blanks so he can go home and get paid. 

And then, right at the end of the battle, Strange plunges a long pole into Kaiju’s single eye and pulls it out with a pop. The camera follows the punctured ball falling gloppily towards the earth. The cinematographer, the director, and the audience are all obviously excited to have found something at last worth watching. 

So it goes throughout. For the most part, the visuals and choreography have no particular spark. Ultron robots march in boring CGI sheen lockstep; devastated alternate universes swirl like someone decided to play with a storm filter; Strange engages in a swift and yet boring martial arts battle in a trench;  evil witch Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) wears leather quasi-dominatrix garb because she’s an evil witch. That’s the one movie. 

In the other one, Wanda crawls out of a porthole with her neck askew and then adjusts her own skeletal structure with a crack. Black Bolt (Anson Mount), a superhero who can destroy anything with a single word, prepares to speak when Wanda erases his mouth; with nowhere to go his own voice turns against him and the back of his head explodes with a quiet pop. Also, a Captain America alternate, Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), is cut in half with her own shield. You don’t see it happen, but you can tell Raimi would really, really like to show you. 

Raimi fans have talked up the Dr. Strange zombie inhabiting his own corpse scene, which is an obvious nod to the director’s Evil Dead movies. But to me, the bit that’s most characteristic is a battle between Dr. Strange and his alternate self in which they start randomly animating musical notes. Raimi’s bizarre zombie attack set pieces—like the famous sequence in which Bruce Campbell is almost murdered by his own hand—owed a clear debt to Warner Brothers cartoons, and the magical musical battle has more than a little Bugs Bunny in it, with the dueling musical staffs functioning as their own soundtrack, and the piano transforming itself into a weapon. 

The musical scene doesn’t work perfectly—the CGI still looks pasted on the frame, and the fight has to be cut short before Raimi can truly conduct a full symphony of silliness. For fans, though, it’s a fun moment of recognition. Yes, this movie looks like a soulless exercise in standard MCU drivel. But the real Raimi is in there, trying to break through the piffle and into our benighted multiverse of mediocrity. 

The bland corporate Rami is the real Rami too, of course, just as the Stephen Stranges who turn to the darkside are real Stephen Stranges. Rami is the guy who made scrappy indie horror comedy, where a camera wheeling through the forest becomes a terrifying monster through sheer genius and gumption. And he’s also the guy who stuffed his pocket full of coins and listened to them jingle while Benedict Cumberbatch looked bored in front of a green screen.  

“Are you happy?” people keep asking Strange. Meanwhile, Wanda sells her soul for love and contentment and ends up miserable and alone. Our parables tell us repetitively not to betray ourselves even as the people who tell those parables are doing just that.  

Raimi turned his back on his muse and was given a multiverse of fame and fortune in return. If this were a just universe, there would be a cost. But maybe it’s just as well it’s not, and there isn’t. Raimi has made some wonderful films; I’m happy enough to see him cash in if that’s what he wants to do. Especially if he gets to toss an occasional tendril of weirdness through the glowing portal, just to remind us that there are other universes out there with other, better movies in them, stranger than Dr. Strange.   

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Marvel Studios.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.